Archaeologists have discovered that a man found in a robbery shaft above a 2,000-year-old tomb in a cemetery in Shiyanzi village in the Ningxia region of China may have been a murder victim, hidden there by his killer 1,300 years ago.
The cemetery was discovered in 2002 and excavated between 2009 and 2011. Archaeologists discovered 12 tombs, the last of which, M12, featured an 18m2 burial chamber containing the remains of a man, a woman, and a child. The size of the tomb suggests that its occupants were high-status individuals who would have been buried with many rich grave goods. Unfortunately, at some point in the past, the large mound that once marked the grave highlighted this fact to a group of thieves, who dug a large shaft down into the burial chamber and stole most of the objects from the tomb. Inside this shaft, archaeologists found the body of a man, aged c.25 years old, initially thought to be one of the robbers who had died in an accident during the theft. However, further investigation suggests that this was not the case.
Analysis of the soil filling the 6.5m-deep shaft revealed that it had accumulated naturally over the centuries. As the man’s body was found in sediment c.4.5m above the floor of the burial chamber, this suggests that he ended up here long after the shaft had originally been dug. It is not known when the looting shaft was created, but the man’s remains have now been radiocarbon dated to AD 640-680, 700 years after the tomb’s original occupants were buried.
Examination of the man’s body also revealed 13 perimortem injuries made by sharp objects: eight on the skull, four on the rib cage, and one on the left arm. The distribution of the injuries, on both his front and back, indicates that multiple people may have been involved in the attack, while a sword found 0.6m above his body in the looting shaft may be one of the murder weapons.
The motivation behind the man’s murder remains unknown; however, the reason for the choice of disposal site is clear. This discovery shows that the strategy of concealing the bodies of murder victims inside existing tombs, or ‘hiding a leaf in a forest’, has been in use for centuries.
The research has been published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.